Xuanzang on the Silk Road

Sally Hovey Wriggins


Xuanzang, a seventh century Buddhist pilgrim, made a historic pilgrimage to India along the Silk Road, one of the longest and oldest trade routes known to mankind. Along with silk and less glamorous articles of trade, the great trans-Asian roads carried ideas and religions which were to prove far more significant than silk. The gentle creed of Buddhism was to revolutionize art and thought not only in China but in Japan and Korea as well. The Lord Buddha had been born in India in BCE 656. Not until 60 or 70 CE were the first Chinese Buddhist communities reported at Loyang. Centuries later, there were so many schools of Buddhism and so many conflicting texts, Xuanzang was clear that he had to go to the source. In 629 CE he set forth to seek “the sacred traces of the Buddha” and to find the true Buddhist scriptures in the land of its birth.[i]


His journey from 629 to 645 CE, a full 16 years, gives us a unique view of the Silk Road in a time of vast changes throughout Asia. A year after his departure, the Khanate of the Eastern Turks fell, removing China’s greatest threat to its northwest borders. Only a few years after Xuanzang witnessed the grand gathering of the Western Turks near Lake Issik Kul, the Great Khan of the Western Turks was assassinated, bringing about the breakdown of the once powerful Western Turkish empire. As these Turkish empires weakened or were destroyed, the Tang emperor Taizong was able to begin establishing suzerainty over the oases kingdoms of the Taklamakan desert. And in India, only 4 years after his Great Debate before the mighty King Harsha, the king died and with his death, the whole of north India descended into chaos while Buddhism declined ever more sharply after his passing.


Xuanzang traveled an astonishing 10,000 miles over three of the highest mountain ranges in Asia, on both the northern and southern Silk roads and through regions that are now Kyrgizstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan on his way to India and back home to China. In the years when Xuanzang had just returned to China, and the Emperor Taizong was consolidating his power in the East, the first three successors of the Prophet Muhammad had overrun Syria, Iran, Palestine, Egypt and the entire Persian empire. India at first lay beyond the wave of 7th century Islamic conquests. However, Sind, the lower half of the Indus valley, was conquered by Arab forces primarily as a rival trade base. But the major advances didn’t come until three centuries later.


According to tradition, before Xuanzang left the capital of the great Tang dynasty, Chang’an (Xian), he had a vision of the holy Mount Sumeru. He beheld an unending horizon, symbol of the countless lands he hoped to see. Because the Tang Emperor had forbidden travel in the dangerous western regions, Xuanzang went forth as a fugitive, hiding by day and traveling by night. When the pilgrim finally reached the Jade Gate, he set out with his horse and a guide to cross the Gashun Gobi desert, a distance of 200 miles. But his journey almost ended before it began, his guide tried to murder him, he lost his way and he dropped his water bag so all the water drained out into the sand. Whether by miracle or by the horse’s instinct for finding water, Xuanzang reached the oasis of Hami, known as Iwu in Tang times, the easternmost of a string of oases at the foot of the Tian Shan mountains. From the summits of these mountains, rivers flow down to the desert dunes until they disappear in the sand. The precious water is transported through underground channels called kariz. With fertile land, and the increasingly prosperous trade of China with the West and the West with China, these oases flourished greatly.


Important as relay stations on the Silk Road between China, Iran and Rome, these ancient caravan kingdoms were also stages on the route of Buddhist pilgrims such as Xuanzang from China to Afghanistan and India. On his outward journey Xuanzang stopped at Hami, Turfan, Kharashahr, Kucha and Aksu on the northern Silk Road. At each of these oases he would visit with kings, replenish his caravan with horses and camels; preach Buddhist doctrine to merchants and warriors as well as his fellow monks on their way to India. Along with Marco Polo, Xuanzang would be the most famous traveler on the Silk Road. He has, however the distinction of having traveled both on the northern and southern Silk roads which even Marco Polo did not do.


Several months after Xuanzang visited Hami,the kingdom reverted back to China. Like many another oasis it was caught between the depredations of Turkic nomads from the north and Chinese conquerors to the south and east. Xuanzang’s reputation preceded him. When Xuanzang was still at Hami, the king of Turfan sent an escort to conduct him to his kingdom, some 200 miles to the west. The king of Turfan was a powerful monarch with great influence throughout the Taklamakan desert, and happily for Xuanzang, he was also a devout Buddhist. The king’s subjects in the ancient kingdom of Turfan were neither Chinese nor Turks nor Mongolians, but an Indo-European people speaking a dialect of the Tocharian language. The government’s institutions however, were based on Chinese models. Reflecting this composite culture, modern excavations around Turfan have brought to light Christian, Nestorian, Manichean and Buddhist manuscripts, sculptures and paintings. Bezeklik monastery in the nearby mountains contained sixty-seven (some say fifty seven caves) dating from the fourth to the fourteenth century.


The king was so attracted to Xuanzang that he tried to detain him by force. Xuanzang staged a hunger strike; the king relented. Once convinced of his determination, the king equipped him with gold, silver, rolls of taffeta and satin, 30 horses, and 24 servants. More important, he gave him 24 letters to be presented to the kingdoms he would pass through. Finally, he commissioned one of his officers to conduct him to the Great Khan of the Western Turks. Xuanzang was overcome by his generosity. Well he might have been, for the Empire of the Western Turks at that time extended from the Altai mountains in the former Soviet Union to what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan.


From Turfan the pilgrim and his now large caravan traveled to Kharashahr Yanqi) and thence to the flourishing kingdom of Kucha. Xuanzang was impressed with the wealth and cultural richness of its civilization as well as its size. A Kuchan orchestra had been introduced at the Chinese court and during the whole of the Tang period took part in imperial fetes. An authentic portrait of the King and Queen of Kucha, originally from the Kizil monastery, reveal an elegantly dressed royal pair and a king with red hair and light skin like most of his subjects, clearly someone of Indo-European origin. The king, not a very prudent man eventually renounced Chinese suzerainty in favor of an alliance with the Turks. In 648 C.E, long after Xuanzang’s stay, the Chinese invaded his country and took the king prisoner.


Beyond Aksu, the next oasis, Xuanzang crossed the Tian Shan range to Kyrgyzstan. Heavy snows delayed his start and should have provided a warning; in his 40 mile crossing, he lost one third of his men and animals. On the other side of the mountains, Xuanzang and his sadly depleted caravan rested at Lake Issik Kul, “the warm lake”, so-called because it never freezes. At Tokmak in 628 C.E., Xuanzang met the Great Khan of the Western Turks who was at the height of his powers. Xuanzang gave him the letter and gifts from the Turfan king. Although he had achieved hegemony in part of the Tarim basin, the Great Khan’s relations with the Tang Emperor in Chang’an were friendly and he welcomed Xuanzang and his party.


This nomad king in a manner reminiscent of Chirggis Khan:

was covered with a robe of green satin, and his hair was loose, only it was bound round with a silken band some ten feet in length, which was twisted around his head and fell down behind. He was surrounded by about 200 officers, who were all clothed in brocade stuff, with their hair braided. On the right and left he was attended by independent troops, all clothed in fur and fine-spun garments; they carried lances and bows and standards, and were mounted on camels and horses. The eye could not estimate their numbers. [ii]


The Great Khan served him a grand feast in a large pavilion adorned with golden flowers that dazzled the eye. The officials clad in shining garments of embroidered silk “sat on mats in two long rows in front of the khan to attend him while armed guards stood behind him. Although the khan was but a lord living in a camp, he had an air of elegance which commanded respect.”[iii] His thoughtful host provided him with a non-alcoholic drink, and instead of mutton and veal, he was offered rice cakes, cream, sugar candy, honey-sticks and raisins. The pilgrim was obliged to deliver a Buddhist sermon after this repast which so impressed the Khan that he, too, asked him to remain in his kingdom. The Great Khan did not insist, however, and gave him letters of introduction to the petty princes of the Gandharan regions (Afghanistan and Pakistan) who were his vassals. Like the rulers of Turfan and Kucha, the Khan and his officers accompanied him a few miles on his journey.  


Xuanzang set out once more going west to Tashkent and thence on to Samarkand in modern-day Uzbekistan. This was the farthest point west on his journey. Being the terminus of caravan routes between Iran and China,it was an important trading entrepot on the Silk Road. Convoys of merchants coming from the north and travelers going south also met there. Xuanzang relates that

The capital is 20 li or so in circuit. It is completely enclosed by rugged land and very populous. The precious merchandise of many foreign countries is stored up here. The soil is rich and productive and yields abundant harvests. The forest trees afford a thick vegetation and flowers and fruits are plentiful.The shen horses are bread here. The inhabitants are skillful in the arts and trades beyond those of other countries.[iv]


Very early on Sogdians from the region of Samarkand specialized as caravaners, so much so that their languages became the lingua franca of the Silk Road east of Dunhuang. These camel drivers also became unofficial emissaries of Buddhism. Although the king of Samarkand was a vassal of the Great Khan of the Western Turks, the local culture was that of Sassanian (226-629 C.E.) Persia. The religion of the king - Zoroastrianism - was Persian and the Sogdian language was related to Persian.


At first the king of Samarkand was pointedly unfriendly, but then after hearing Xuanzang preach, the king allowed Xuanzang to convene an assembly where he ordained a number of monks. Shortly after Xuanzang’s visit the king sent an embassy to China asking to be received as a vassal state. The Emperor Taizong declined to accede to this request; instead thetwo countries established diplomatic and commercial relations.


The pilgrim turned his face to the south to pass through Shar-i Sabz (Kesh) and an eastern spur of the Pamir Mountains. He entered the famous pass called The Iron Gates, 8 miles west of modern Derbent on the regular trade route from Samarkand to the Oxus and beyond to India. On the Oxus River lay Termez where he found Buddhism flourishing. He notes that there were some 1,100 brethren. As he passed through lands south of the Oxus (Amu Darya), which nowadays divides Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, he would learn more about Buddhism’s chief form of architecture, the stupa, more about the great Buddhist Kings Asoka and Kanishka, and come to know some of the well-known images of the Buddha, such as the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan.


His first important stop was in Bactria, part of modern Afghanistan. Balkh was a city of prodigious antiquity which Alexander the Great chose for his home base from 329 to 327 CE. The successors of Alexander and the Kushan kings who succeeded them contributed to the distinctive art which we call Gandharan. Xuanzang stayed a month at the New Monastery there, one of the finest in the Buddhist world, where he admired its relics. After Balkh, he struggled through the treacherous Hindu Kush mountains to reach the valley of Bamiyan. It was a station of primary importance on the road from Central Asia to India. The pilgrim visited the colossal Gandharan statues carved in the cliff face.[v] Modern art historians continue to quote his description of a giant Buddha, the largest stone statue in the world, actually 180 feet, a little larger than the pilgrim reported.


          On a declivity of a hill to the northeast of the capital was a standing image of the Buddha made out of stone 140 or 150 feet high, of a brilliant golden color and resplendent with ornamentation of precious substances. [vi]


This famous statue has become known all over the world when it was deliberately destroyed in March 2000.

From this important center of Buddhism, Xuanzang and his caravan made their way through the Black Mountains to the plain of Kapisa, whose capital Kapisi, is 40 miles north of Kabul. This was the first capital of the Kushan empire established in the first century C.E. Kanishka I,(BCE 78-225 CE?) its most famous king, ruled over much of present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and part of Central Asia.[vii] He was a great supporter of Buddhism and especially of Gandharan sculpture, that hybrid of Buddhism and Graeco/Roman art. which produced classical figures of calm and serene Buddhas.


Xuanzang met Jain and Hindu ascetics for the first time on this part of his journey. He contrasts the mountain-dwelling Afghans with their harsh uncultivated ways, wearing fur garments and coarse wool, to the Hindus who were slight, active and impetuous in comparison, and whose garments were made of white linen or cotton for the most part. A modern view marks British India as beginning at the eastern side of the Khyber Pass, but Xuanzang considered he had entered India at Jalalabad, his next important resting place.


When Xuanzang finally reached the area near Jalalabad in Pakistan, he felt as Alexander the Great did 9 centuries earlier, that he had entered a new world. He stops his travel narrative to devote a long chapter to a consideration of the land of India. He says:


{India} was above 90,000 li in circuit, with the Snowy Mountains (The Hindu Kush) in the north and the sea on its three other sides... It was politically divided into above seventy kingdoms; the heat of the summer was very great...[viii]


He then gives us Indian measures of space and time, tells us about the castes of India, notes the characteristics of the people, their education, customs, products, dress (“the people have no tailoring”) in a kind of ethnographic survey. He describes the Indian languages as did the Muslim historian Alberuni(973-1094 C.E.) in his book about India in the 11th century. Both Xuanzang and Alberuni took great pains to master Sanskrit so they describe India not merely as observers but as scholars. Although both writers regarded Brahmins as heretics, both do justice to their intelligence, love of learning and intellectual labors. In the broadest sense, both devoted themselves to “Indian” thought at a very high level; Alberuni to Hinduism and Xuanzang to Buddhism. Alberuni,as a Muslim, deplored the worship of idols and Xuanzang as a moderation-loving Chinese, deplored Hindu excesses such as “the Hindu who covers himself with ashes like a cat who has slept in a chimney.”


Xuanzang has a greater interest in the affairs of government,the royal families, the army as an institution, assessing political strength etc which shows itself in this summary of India as well as in his book as a whole. He is after all writing a report on the Western Regions about the very countries where he had been to the Tang Emperor who needed information on the new Asian relationships in his expanding empire.


Alberuni sums up his aim in the last paragraph of his book; “he would provide the essential facts for any Muslim who wanted to converse with Hindus, and to discuss with them questions of religion, science or literature.”[ix] A modest statement by one whose special subjects were astronomy, chronology, mathematical geography, physics and chemistry which he is said to treat with consummate learning.


In the course of Xuanzang’s travels around the Indian continent, he characterizes each kingdom, describing the length and breadth of the kingdom, the size of the capital, tells us about the soil, products, climate, describes the inhabitants, their clothes, style of writing, money government, kings, codes of law along with his purely Buddhist concerns.


Thus Taxila in modern-day Pakistan,

was above 2,000 li in circuit, its capital being above 10 li in circuit. The chiefs of the states were in a state of open feud, the royal family being extinguished; the country had formerly been subject to Kapisa but now it was a dependency of Kashmir; it had a fertile soil and bore good crops, with flowing streams and luxuriant vegetation; the climate was genial; and the people, who were plucky, were adherents of Buddhism. Although the Monasteries were numerous, many of them were desolate, and the Brethren, who were very few, were all Mahayanist.[x]                                                    

Xuanzang’s interests extended to art and architecture. He admires the Buddhist monastic buildings “with a tower at each of the four quarters of the quadrangle and three high walls {stories} in a tier.” He depicts the chief forms of Buddhist architecture such as the stupa, solid mounds which encased relics and around which the devout proceeded in a form of worship. King Asoka (ruled 3rd c B.C.E.), the first great patron of Buddhism is said to have started the building of stupas. Xuanzang visits these stupa mounds all over India and describes the numerous massive stone pillars of Asoka which are reminiscent of the pillars of Darius. He does not mention his famous edicts of good government which were inscribed in a vernacular language instead of the literary language of Sanskrit[xi]. Xuanzang relates the legend concerning the erection of the giant tower stupa of King Kanishka near Peshawar in Pakistan said to be the tallest skyscraper in Asia. He gives the exact location which centuries later led to the discovery of the Kanishka reliquary.


Aurel Stein, the great Central Asian explorer and archeologist, credits Xuanang with the first ethnographic survey of Kashmir, where the pilgrim studied Buddhist philosophy for two years from 631-633 C.E. This long stay was not surprising for as his biographer reports:

This country from remote times was distinguished for learning, and these priests were all of high religious merit and conspicuous virtue, as well as of marked talent, and power of clear exposition of doctrine: and though the other priests {i.e, of other nations} were in their own way distinguished, yet they could not be compared with these so different were they from the ordinary class.[xii]



As he drew closer to the Buddhist Holy Land in the northeastern part of India, he tells us more about Buddhist history and doctrines. He relates the famous legends or incidents from the life of the Buddha, as well as the many tales of the Buddha in previous incarnations. He also gives a history of the Great Buddhist Councils and locates the places associated with the famous philosophers such as Vasubandu and Arjuna, often citing their principal works. Like many another Chinese pilgrim who visited India, he was also interested in observing the practice of Buddhism outside China and so he reports on the number of monks and monasteries, the variety of sects, Buddhist festivals and the custom of Buddhist debates. Xuanzang is sure to tell us about the good works of kings who were patrons of Buddhism like King Asoka , King Kanishka or King Harsha (7th CE)                                                 


His travels were not without danger in China or in India. He met a band of robbers near Kharashahr and in Afghanistan shortly before he visited the cave of the Buddha’s shadow where he was granted a vision of the Buddha’s form. Robbers also tried to ambush his caravan in the Punjab. Pirates very nearly burned him at the stake not far from Ayodha. While on the pirate’s altar, Xuanzang was able to concentrate on the figure of the Maitreya Buddha so that he lost all awareness of his surroundings. He does not report his narrow escapes to the Emperor and so we are indebted to his biographer,Hui Li, for the accounts of them.


Along with his search for Buddhist texts and sacred knowledge, Xuanzang went to India as a pilgrim. As he approaches the Buddhist Holy Land, he venerates the stupas containing relics of the Buddha. What he wrote of a small well from which the Buddha drew water for drinking shows his heartfelt response to many religious sites. “A mysterious sense of awe surrounds the precincts of the place; many miracles are manifested also. Sometimes heavenly music is heard, at other times divine odours are perceived.”[xiii] His goal was Bodh Gaya at the Bodhi tree where the Buddha attained Enlightenment. Here he cast himself down on the ground and wept.[xiv]       


At the time when the Buddha perfected himself in wisdom, I knew not in what condition I was, in the troublous whirl of birth and death.[xv]


Xuanzang knew the perfection of the Buddha and his own unworthiness.


Not long after this touching moment at Bodh Gaya, the monks from Nalanda came to take him 60 miles to their monastery. Xuanzang had been traveling in northern India for 5 years before he finally arrived at Nalanda, the most famous monastery- university in India in 637 CE. Monks from all over Asia attended lectures on grammar, logic, Buddhist philosophy, Sanskrit, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, literature, and works of magic. Xuanzang remained here for a total of 2 years, returning for a final visit in 642 CE.[xvi] He was also particularly interested in the lectures on Yogachara Buddhism, the mystic philosophy that had drawn him to India in the first place. As he was a special guest from far away, he was given the use of a palanquin or an elephant for trips outside Nalanda to visit famous sites of the Buddha where he preached at Vulture Peak and the Buddha’s miracle at Rajagriha.


Xuanzang’s intellectual curiosity was insatiable. Leaving Nalanda in 638 he traveled along both coasts of India and much of the interior - a trek of 3,000 miles and more. Was it, that having opened the door to Buddhist philosophy and metaphysics, he found that there was always more to know, always another school to master? Another attraction must have been to visit the birthplaces of some of the great Buddhist philosophers in the south such as Nagarjuna the skeptic, Dharmapala, the teacher of his master at Nalanda, and Dignaga the logician, just as he had been to the northern places connected with the Idealist philosophers Asanga and Vasubandhu, who had meant so much to him. And he probably hoped to collect more scholarly treatises, works on logic and grammar and healing sutras to add to the library of Buddhist works he hoped to take back to China. His account of the kingdoms he visited in the southern part of India is much less detailed than his previous accounts of northern India.


Toward the end of his stay, Xuanzang had the heady experience of being quarreled over by two kings -- the King of Assam and the illustrious King Harsha (reigned 607-647 C.E.) who was one of the last of the great Buddhist rulers before the triumph of Hinduism and the invasion of Islam. The year before he had finally met the pilgrim in 642 C.E., King Harsha had already established diplomatic relations with China. King Harsha was so impressed with the pilgrim that he staged a great debate to show off his skills. He invited the kings of 18 vassal kingdoms, 3,000 Buddhist monks, 2,000 Hindus and Jains to hear him proclaim the superiority of Mahayana Buddhism over Hindu and Jain beliefs as well as other kinds of Buddhism. It was a grand finale for his years in India.


When Xuanzang finally departed in 643 CE he was given a military escort to carry the books and images he had been collecting from the Indian subcontinent. King Harsha presented him with his best and biggest elephant capable of carrying eight men as well as the thousands of gold and silver pieces given him for expenses along the way. The king also provided him with letters to rulers on the homeward route. Only 4 years later this remarkable, versatile monarch was gone; for the next 3 centuries there would be disorder and famine in northern India. Spear, the modern historian,notes,                                     

Beginning with the fall of the Guptas and becoming complete after the death of Harsha in 647 A.D., north Indian history is confused and obscure for some five or six hundred years. As the Dark Ages divide the classical age of the Greek and the Roman, so do these centuries divide modern from ancient India.[xvii]


Having decided not to return by sea, Xuanzang and his party turned to the northeast. They crossed northern India by way of Jalandhara and Taxila returning in the opposite direction by roughly the same route Xuanzang’s caravan had taken 13 years before. At length in 644 CE Xuanzang arrived at Hund on the Indus River but here a storm rose up and overturned his boats so that he lost 50 of his precious manuscripts. He sent to Udyana for extra copies of his scriptures, waiting 2 months hoping for their arrival at Kapisa. At length his caravan reached the Hindu Kush mountains. Like Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps with his elephant and baggage train, their crossing in 644 CE proved to be far more difficult than they had imagined. Xuanzang’s biographer stated that their caravan consisted only of 5 priests, 20 followers, 1 elephant, 10 asses and 4 horses. At length they descended to Kunduz on the Oxus river where they waited another month for copies of the lost manuscripts.                                

Instead of returning the way he had come to India on the northern caravan roads to Samarkand he ascended to the upper reaches of the Oxus River, climbing the Pamir range to reach Kashgar.(This was the route Marco Polo followed on his way to China in 1271 C.E.) Xuanzang crossed near the Tagdumbash Pamirs which Marco Polo has called the Roof of the World. This is where the ranges of the Hindu Kush crossing modern-day Afghanistan, the Karakorum in northern Pakistan and the Pamirs in Afghanistan and Tajikistan and the Tian Shan range in China all meet in the Pamir knot.


On the other side of the Pamirs Xuanzang’s caravan again met tragedy when they were attacked by robbers in a very narrow defile. His elephant was chased by bandits, fell into the river and drowned. Aurel Stein has located what he believes to be the very gorge where this took place.[xviii] Xuanzang and his party made their way on the western slopes of 24,399 foot Mustagh-Ata, the second highest peak in the Pamirs. At last he reached Kashgar in China’s westernmost oasis on the edge of the Taklamakan desert in what is now Xinjiang (Sinkiang). Xuanzang commented on”the fine woollen stuffs and fine woven woollen rugs”of this important trade center.[xix] Xuanzang also mentioned that the people had green eyes, suggesting the Sogdian or East Iranian origin of some of the population.


His next important stop was Khotan, a fortnight’s journey on the caravan road. It was the largest oasis on the Southern Silk Road. Khotan also produced rugs, fine felt and silk as well as black and white jade. Everywhere he found evidence of Indian influence. The local tradition was that Khotan had been settled by Indians from Taxila. Xuanzang visited a monastery built to commemorate the introduction of silk culture from China circa 140 CE when the king’s wife, a Chinese princess, brought silkworm eggs and mulberry seeds in her headdress to the king. Xuanzang spent 7 or 8 months in Khotan still waiting for some of the lost scriptures. Finding a trader who was going to Chang’an, he sent a letter to the emperor, saying that he was on his way home. In 629 CE he had left China against the emperor’s wishes and didn’t know how he would be received on his return. But after several months a messenger arrived with the emperor’s reply in which he expressed great pleasure at the news of Xuanzang’s imminent return.


Soon afterwards, he left Khotan. Xuanzang does not provide much information about places on the southern Silk Road. He does say that on leaving Niya, “travellers pile up bones of animals as beacons” from preceding caravans to guide them. He goes on:


“When these winds rise, then both men and beasts become confused and forgetful. At times sad and plaintive notes are heard and piteous cries so that between the sights and sounds of this desert men get confused and know not whither they go..Hence there are many who perish on the journey[xx]


Marco Polo described similar phenomena. Xuanzang rested from his desert traveling at Dunhuang at the juncture of the northern and southern silk roads, famous as a Buddhist shrine, library and gallery of Buddhist art. Although a wall painting in Cave #103 illustrates a sutra, it may portray Xuanzang on his way back from India with the elephant given to him by King Harsha.[xxi] .


When the pilgrim arrived at Chang’an in 645 the emperor Taizong( 626-649 C.E.) was away on a military expedition, so high officials met him and guided him into the capital. A procession of monks carried his 657 books, gold and sandalwood images, and relics through the city. The streets were filled with vast crowds welcoming him home. Subsequently he went to Luoyang where the Emperor Taizong asked about the rulers, climate, customs, products and histories of the countries he had visited. First the emperor exhorted him to be one of his advisors on Asian affairs.“If your Majesty orders me to return to secular life, it would be like dragging a boat from the water to the land.”[xxii] After Xuanzang refused,the emperor suggested that he write a book about the Western Regions which Xuanzang completed in 646 CE.


One of the ironies concerning Xuanzang’s legacy in China, is that it was the stories of dramatic escapes that intrigued the Chinese people. A popular story cycle inspired by the travels of Xuanzang had already developed by the 10th century which led finally to the 16th century epic Hsiyoji or Journey to the West. Xuanzang was painted in temple wall decorations, and was the subject of popular block prints, puppet shows etc. The Buddhist pilgrim still remains a well-known folk hero in contemporary China and in parts of East Asia.


For the next 19 years until his death in 664 C.E., he concentrated on translating the variety of Buddhist scriptures that he managed to bring back with him. Along with Kumarajiva, Paramartha and Amoghavajra, he is well-known as one of the four great translators of Buddhism. He is also remembered for the Wild Goose Pagoda which he persuaded the Emperor Gaozong to build to house his scriptures. The famous pagoda still stands as a major tourist attraction in Xian, or Chang’an, as it was known in the 7th century.


Chang’an the cosmopolitan Tang capital at that time, was the world’s largest city with 2 million inhabitants. Sogdians, Turks, Persian, Indians, Arabs, all the peoples of Central Asia crowded into the Great Western Market where foreigners generally sold their goods. It came to preside over the largest empire the world had yet seen, exceeding even the Han and the Roman Empires[xxiii]. The Emperor Taizong and Xuanzang were both molders of an age and reflections of it. The Chinese pilgrim “had seen traces of the Buddha not seen before and heard sacred verses not heard before” on his journey. In a dream of Mt. Sumeru which Xuanzang had before he departed the young monk saw an unending horizon- symbol of the countless lands he was to visit. With this dream, he overcame his fear of the unknown and traveled vast distances on the Silk Road. In this splendid period of medieval Buddhism, he forged new bonds between the major civilizations of Asia. Xuanzang served as a fine diplomat throughout his 16 year journey. He showed himself to be fully conscious of places, situations and relationships, wherever he was. With few exceptions he had an attitude of openness and receptivity. All this was accomplished without a loss of his own warmth and integrity. The Tang Emperor Taizong called him the “jewel of the Empire” and rightly so.


Even now in the twentieth century, Xuanzang stands as a great religious personality, a world-class trekker whose travels were only exceeded by Ibn Batuta, (1323-1354 CE) many centuries later. He was a brilliant man with a broad range of intellectual skills, as a translator, linguist, debater, and historian as well as devout Buddhist and folk hero. Xuanzang is like a dead star that continues to release energy year after year after year.                                     





















[i].“Chi,(traces)was a key term in the thought of medieval China and in its widest meaning it embraced the phenomenal world.” For a discussion of the word “traces” and what it means in a specifically Chinese context see T.H. Barrett “Exploratory Observations on Some Weeping Chinese pilgrims”. London, The Buddhist Studies Forum Vol 1. Seminar Papers (1987-88) ed. Tadusz Skorupski. School of African and Asian Studies. 1990. p.99-110.

[ii].Samuel Beal, trans. The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang from the Chinese of Shaman Hwui li-London, 2nd ed. Manshiram Manoharlal, 1973, p.42.

[iii].Li Yongshi, trans. The Life of Hsuan-Tsang. Peiking, Chinese Buddhist Assoc. 1959, p.43. In his travels in Central Asian Turkestan that were later to become centers of carpet weaving, Xuanzang makes no mention of the existence or production of either woven or knotted carpets. This would seem to be crucial evidence that the nomads at that time were producing only felt rugs. Later on in his account he does mention that in both Kashgar and Khotan, fine woven rugs were produced. See also Hans Bidder, Carpets from Eastern Turkestan, Accockeek, Md. Washington International Association 1979. p.18.   

[iv].Samuel Beal, trans, Si-yu-ki, Records of the Western World from the Chinese of Hiuen- Tsang, London 1884. Rpt. Delhi, Mushiram Manoharlal, 1961, 2 vols. p.32.

[v].Xuanzang also mentions a statue at a monastery 12 to 13 li east of the capital as a recumbent image of the Buddha in Nirvana above 1000 feet long .On top of a high cliff are white encrustations from mineral springs which the Hazara recognize as the form of a petrified dragon. The area is known as the Valley of the Dragons and is visited by Hazara pilgrims for it is here that their hero Hazrat Ali performed one of his legendary miracles. See Nancy Hatch Wolfe, The Valley of Bamiyan Kabul, Afghan Tourist Organization 1963. “It is interesting to note that M. Fouchet advanced the theory that this encrustation might be the reclining Buddha that Hsuen-tsang {Xuanzang}refers to in his account of his visit to Bamiyan in 632.” p.68. Note that T. Watters is skeptical that Xuanzang could think a dragon or recumbent lizard was a Buddha in Nirvana.

[vi].Thomas Watters, trans.,On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India, 2 vols. London 1904-5, rpt. Delhi, Munshiram Manoharlal, 1961. p.118.                        

[vii].See S.J.Czuma, Kushan Sculpture: Images from Early India, Cleveland, Cleveland Museum of Art. 1985.


[viii].Watters, ibid, p.140.


[ix].Alberuni India trans by Edward C Sachau. New York, W.W. Norton &Co. Quoted in Introduction p xi by .Ainslie T. Embree.

[x].Watters, ibid, Vol. 1 p.240                                                                                      

[xi].Nancy Elizabeth Boulton, Early Chinese Buddhist Travel Records as a Literary Genre, Phd, diss. University of Michigan 1982. p.195.

[xii].Beal, Life. p.71.

[xiii].Samuel Beal, trans, Records, vol.ii. p.7.

[xiv].For a new interpretation of Xuanzang’s weeping, see T. H. Barrett’s “Some Exploratory Observations on Some Weeping Pilgrims” Op.Cit., and Malcolm David Ekel, To See the Buddha, Princeton University Press, 1992, for an exploration of Xuanzang’s devotion with special reference to the Meaning of Emptiness.

[xv].Beal, Life, p105.                                                                                        

[xvi].There is little agreement on the duration of Xuanzang’s stay at Nalanda. Vincent Smith “The Itinerary of Yuan Chwang”(Xuanzang) p.329. Appendix in Watter’s Travels in India said that he was at Nalanda in 637 C.E and that he stayed for a while, returned, and then studied for fifteen months. Counting his subsequent visit at the end of 642.C.E, his total residence amounted to two years. That seems likely in view of his subsequent travels in India. He was in the south of India in 639 and in Nasik in 641.C.C. Watters, Saint Hilaire and others indicated that he was there five years . See Sally Wriggins, Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road, Boulder, Westview Press/Harper Collins 1996. p.237.

[xvii].Percival Spear, India, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press. 1961.p.85.

[xviii].Aurel Stein, Ruins of Desert Cathay. Vol.1, London 1912. Rpt. New York Dover 1987. p.100.

[xix].Watters, T. op. it. Vol ii p.290.

20.Beal, Records, Vol ii p.325.

[xxi].See T. Akiyama and S. Matsubara , Arts of China-Buddhist Cave Temples New Researches. Trans. A Soper. 1969: rpt. Kodansha International, Tokyo.1972. p.216. Also Bradley Smith and Wan-goWeng, China, A History of Art New York, Doubleday, n.d. p.125.

[xxii].Li Yongshi, Ibid. p. 212.                                                                         


[xxiii].Rhoades Murphy,A History of Asia, New York, Harper Collins, 1992, p.116.









Barrett, T.H. “Explanatory Observations of Some Weeping Pilgrims”, London. The Buddhist Studies Forum Vol. 1, Seminar Papers 1987-88. E. Tadusz Skorupski, School of African and Oriental Studies. 1990.


Samuel Beal, trans. The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang Trans. from the Chinese of Shaman Hwui li. London, 1911. 2nd ed.Delhi. Munishiram Manoharlal, 1973.


Li Yongshi, trans. The Life of Hsuan-Tsang by Huili. Peking: Chinese Buddhist Assoc. 1959.


Hans Bidder, Carpets from Eastern Turkestan, Accokeek, Md.:Washington International Associates, 1979.


Samuel Beal, trans. Si-yu-ki Records of the Western World by Hiuen Tsiang. 2 vols.London. 1884: rpt.Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corp., 1969.


Nancy Hatch Wolfe, The Valley of Bamiyan ,Kabul, Afghan Tourist Association ,1963.

Thomas Watters, trans. On Yuan Chwang;s Travels in India ,2 vols. London. 1904-5; rpt. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1961.


S.J. Czuma, Kushan Sculpure;Images from Early India, Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art ,1985.


Alberuni, Alberuni’s India trans by Edwar C Sanchau . New York, Norton & Co.1971.


Nancy Elizabeth Boulton, Early Chinese Buddhist Travel Records as a Literary Genre, Ph.D diss.Ann Arbor, University of Michigan 1982.


Malcom David Eckel, To See the Buddha , Princeton, Princeton University Press 1992.


Sally Hovey Wriggins Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road, Boulder, Westview Press/Harper Collins 1996.


Spear, Percival, India Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961.


Rhoades Murphy, A History of Asia, New York :Harper Collins, 1992.


Aurel Stein, Ruins of Desert Cathay, 2 vols. London 1912. Rpt. New York: Dover 1987.


T. Akiyama and S. Matsubara, Arts of China :Buddhist Cave Temples, New Researches, Trans. A Soper. 1969; Tokyo, Kodansha International, 1972.                                      


Bradley Smith and Wang-go Weng China, A History of Art, New York, Doubleday.n.d.






Possible Photographs



(1) Map of Travels of Xuanzang from China to India, in India and on the way hom.e Cartography by Philips Schwartzberg. Meredian Mapping. (Page one)


(2) Wall painting of a pilgrim with a monkey and a horse bearing scriptures. Earliest legendary depiction of Xuanzang recently discovered at Yulin, 100 miles from Dunhuang. 12th century. Courtesy of Ning Quiang. (Page two)


(3)King and Queen of Kucha. Painting Grotto Maya from Kizil. L’Asia Centrale: Histoire et Civilization. Paris: L’ Imprimerie Nationale. 1977. P.32.(Page three)


(4) General view of Bezeklik Monastery. The caves are filled with beautiful wall paintings which are now largely destroyed. ( Copyright, Sally Wriggins photographer) page three.


(5) Valley of Bamiyan set between the Hindu Kush and the Khoh-i-baba ranges.One of the two colossal Buddha’s described by Xuanzang is visible in this photograph. Courtesy of Lee Coldren.

(Page six )


(6)Headless statue of King Kanishka with inscription visible on his long skirted coat. Xuanzang had been following the career of King Kashishka all through Central Asia. Courtesy Mathura Museum (Page eight)


(7)Wall painting of Dunhuang Cave #103. One intepretation is that it shows Xuanzang returning from India with the great white elephant given to him by King Harsha. Courtesy Lucy Lo.

(Page thirteen)


Could also include View of Stupa #3 at Nalanda monastery in India, Exterior of Dunhuang Caves at the juncture of the Northern and Southern Silk Roads, Traditional 14th century portrait of Xuanzang taken from a stele at Xuanzang’s burial place outside Xian.